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Race Day: New Hampshire Is The Place For The Chase

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
New Hampshire Motor Speedway has become a driver favorite.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has become a driver favorite. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It wasn’t that long ago that New Hampshire Motor Speedway was about as popular with NASCAR drivers as jock itch. No longer.

The track has been repaved and redone over the years and is now regarded by many in the sport as a track with character.

The fact that is has become the site of the start of the playoffs has more to do with circumstances than anything else, but few drivers seem to be upset that the Chase kicks off in Loudon.

Here is what some drivers said about New Hampshire:

Denny Hamlin: “It’s a good track.  I think it’s a good track to start the Chase off.  You typically see the guys that are up there in points run really well at this race track.  I don’t think it will be any different this weekend.  It looks like the times are extremely fast.  For whatever reason it looks like everyone is about a half-second faster than what they were here in the spring.  I think that’s going to be a little different element.  We’ve just got to find a little bit of speed in our car.”

Jeff Gordon: “Well I raced here in the Nationwide Series before Cup. The reason this track is on the schedule is because of the fans. The fans that are in this region that support our series and racing in general will rival any on the circuit. I give the Bahre family a lot of credit too for building this facility. It’s a flag one-mile race track. It’s not a 1.5-mile d-shaped oval and yet it’s one of the races in the Chase. Now the significance of it as a competitor is it’s in the Chase. It’s not like any other track that we go to. It’s a very tough, challenging race track but it’s one of the 10 so you put a lot of focus and effort into it.”

Tony Stewart: “This is a place we have always run well at. Couldn’t think of a better place to actually start the Chase for us.”

Greg Biffle: I’m really excited about being in the chase and the chase starting here in Loudon.  This has historically been a good race track for us, probably with the old car we ran very, very good here.  Then when we transitioned to the new car, we didn’t run good for about a year or year-and-a-half – about three or four races – and then kind of got back on track running good again, so we’re excited about that.  I don’t know what happened in that meantime, why we couldn’t get it figured out, but we ran good here in the spring.  Obviously, with the rain we didn’t end up with the finish we wanted, but ran very good. I’m excited about starting out the chase here.”

The Chase starts today. That means:

* Three-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) is aiming for a fourth consecutive title, something no NASCAR driver has accomplished. He’s the only driver to participate in all six Chase events.

* Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Yellow Ribbon Chevrolet) is on a “Drive for Five.” His last title came in 2001, and he’s finished in the top five in the standings in four of the past seven seasons. A fifth title leaves only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt out of reach; both men have seven series titles.

* Two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) also is attempting to distance himself in the record books. Not only is the first-year owner of Stewart-Haas Racing going for a third series title, he’s also targeting the first for a driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki did it in 1992.

Fast Facts:

The Race: Sylvania 300

The Place: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 20

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 300 laps/317.4 miles

TV: ABC, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128

2008 Winner: Greg Biffle

2008 Polesitter: Kyle Busch

2009 Polesitter: Juan Pablo Montoya

Consider this about the Chase and New Hampshire:

* 2004 — In the Chase’s first year, eventual series champion Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) led off with a New Hampshire win. He didn’t win again during the Chase, but gathered enough momentum to beat series runner-up Jimmie Johnson by eight points after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

* 2005 — In a reverse of fortune, Busch encountered immediate trouble (and a 34th-place finish) in the first Chase race at New Hampshire. Meanwhile, eventual champion Tony Stewart finished second, beginning a run of seven top 10s that helped seal his second series title.

* 2007 — Then-second-year driver Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet), considered by many as a Chase afterthought, won his first series race in the first Chase race at New Hampshire to establish himself as a contender. He finished third in the final standings that year.

Speaking of momentum:

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota) is the most recent winner, having won for the first time at his hometown track (Richmond) last Saturday. The win — one of two thus far in 2009 — also boosted Hamlin’s Chase seeding; he begins fourth behind Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, respectively.

Hamlin also pulled off some impressive statistics in the 10-event “Race to the Chase” which preceded the Chase, capturing both his wins along with a series-high 1,482 points during that 10-race span.

Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) trails only Hamlin in momentum. He’s seeded eighth in the Chase, but likely is full of optimism after racing his way into his first Chase last Saturday night in Richmond (he edged Kyle Busch by eight points for the final Chase slot).

Vickers earned the most points over the final eight races in the “Race to the Chase” with seven top 10s and one win, at Michigan International Speedway.

Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) is the other driver in his first Chase, undoubtedly buoyed by that accomplishment.

Now in his third year of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, the former Formula 1 star is seeded 11th. He had five top 10s during the “Race to the Chase.” Though he has yet to win in 2009, his 12 top 10s thus far exceeds his previous career-high of six in 2007. Sunday’s race also marks his 100th series start.

Jimmie Johnson can’t be ignored at any time. The reigning and three-time series champion is seeded third, with three wins thus far in 2009. He’s finished in the top five in all seven of his previous NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons and is the only driver to participate in all six Chases.

Plus, Chase time is his time. No one has won more Chase races — 14. And Johnson leads three key NASCAR Loop Data categories — Driver Rating (110.3), Laps Led (1,252) and Fastest Laps Run (738).

“We’ve shown we’ve had a lot of speed in the cars and if we can just minimize mistakes we’ll be in great shape,” Johnson said.

Up next:

Dover International Speedway hosts the second race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — the AAA 400 — next Sunday, Sept. 27 (2 p.m. start on ABC).

Greg Biffle is the defending winner. Jeff Gordon is the defending polesitter.

Last September victory at Dover was the second consecutive one in the 2008 Chase for Biffle, who’d won the first Chase event the previous week at New Hampshire.

Chase participant Mark Martin leads all drivers with 21 top fives and 29 top 10s at Dover.

Roush Fenway Racing drivers have won five of the last 10 events at Dover, including Biffle’s victory last year.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 20 2009
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